I often thought that a career in academic theology was at best a waste of time and at worst a betrayal of the Kingdom. As an undergraduate in science there were many Christian voices who reinforced that view:
- ‘Doing a theology degree will mean you will lose your faith’
- ‘Instead of believing the Bible, those departmental theologians pull it apart’
- ‘What use is theology in evangelism’
- ‘I did theology for three years and it taught me nothing about how to lead a growing church’.
Of course, there were a few theologians who were solid evangelicals, but stories abounded on how they were hounded, constrained and compromised in academic departments. It seemed that the only way to do theology was to do it in an evangelical bible college where the doctrinal basis was common ground for staff and students.
In fact, when I sensed the Lord calling me to church leadership, I viewed the requirement of doing a theology degree as an assault course to be conquered rather than an equipping for serving the church and the world. So, what changed to such an extent that I now find myself in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University? As you might imagine a number of things.
First, the call of God. God got me here through opportunities and guidance. God can guide you into using theology in a church context, in teaching in a bible college, and in my case academic theology in a non confessional University department. The Lord calls us all in different ways and part of what I have had to learn over the years that God calls us to glorify Jesus in ways we might never expect. I was not walking down the road one day and an angel appeared and said, ‘Don’t be afraid but go and teach systematic theology’. But looking back on the complexities of life and trying to be faithful to the Lord, I believe that he has put me in this place.
Second, I have met so many within academic theology who love the Lord and want to serve Him. Some of them would define themselves as evangelicals and some of them would not. But their view of theology as more than just an academic discipline, gave me inspirational role models to see the role of theology as servant of the church. As a student I sat in the same congregation and house groups as New Testament scholars CK Barrett and JDG Dunn. I also heard them preach regularly. Alongside his outstanding international scholarship Barrett preached most Sundays for over 70 years. In fact, he preached in one chapel every Good Friday for 50 years – that is 50 different sermons on the cross alone!
Third, I experienced the value of academic theology in addressing honest questions of faith that became far more important for me in ministry than the more sterile and comfortable training courses offered within some Christian bubbles of culture and learning. When I was training for ministry at Cambridge I gravitated away from theological colleges to the academic department. It was here that I saw Don Cupitt and Brian Hepplethwaite slug it out on questions of suffering and whether God was more than just a subjective experience. John Polkinghorne brought science and theology into dialogue, while Robert Gordon and Hugh Williamson made the Old Testament live in both ancient and contemporary horizons. It was exactly these type of questions that I had to struggle with in mission and ministry. Indeed, in preaching, in pastoral crisis and in evangelism and apologetics I found that I was looking to the resources provided by academic departments.
Fourth, within the ecology of global theology, academic departments have a strategic place in shaping the development of scholars across the world and being a prophetic voice to the mission of the church. To be an evangelical in this setting is a privilege. Not only to encourage fellow evangelicals but to offer the gifts of the evangelical tradition to the wider theological discipline. Most of the time my experience has been that this has been treated with respect. There was one occasion in a discussion on live television when a fellow theologian rolled their eyes and exclaimed that I was naïve and ignorant for believing that there was good historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But this stands out as a rare occurrence. Fellow academic theologians will disagree strongly but on the most part with academic courtesy and an increasing appreciation of the contribution and importance of the evangelical tradition for theology.
Fifth, it is because I am an evangelical that I have confidence in being a theologian within a University setting. For seventeen years I was the Principal of St John’s College within Durham University. The College was founded at the beginning of the 20th century by a group of evangelicals who wanted to train evangelicals for leadership. Rather than doing it apart from a University setting they wanted it right at the heart of a world class university. They believed that the evangelical faith had nothing to fear and should not shelter in its own sub-culture and they believed that the evangelical faith had much to contribute not just to a theological department but to the whole range of subjects in the university.
I am conscious that working in a Department such as Durham, which still puts great value on Christian theology alongside the study of religions, and as senior academic may be far easier than the challenges of a younger academic in a very different department. However, I do believe that a career in academic theology is something worthwhile for an evangelical to consider pursuing. This is not to devalue the importance of fellow theologians teaching in bible colleges or theological seminaries where a particular shared understanding of the authority of scripture is key. In fact, such theologians are such an important resource for the Kingdom. Working within an academic department has different opportunities and challenges.
As I look on my own vocation and nearly 25 years working within Durham University, I continue to learn several things which have sustained me. Key has been the normal components of Christian discipleship, which are so obvious that sometimes they are easy to forget. Being fully part of a local church is so important, being there every Sunday whether it is preaching or being part of the coffee rota but most of all being there to worship with the people of God. This has provided a rhythm of life, an earthing of theology and a supportive and prayerful community that has been essential to sustaining life as a theologian. Then reading scripture both as an individual and as part of a group in addition to theological work allows me to encounter the Word of God in a transformative way. Alongside this a regular rhythm of prayer and commitment to sharing Jesus with others form the basic foundations.
One of my distinguished predecessors in Durham, Anthony Thiselton, then takes us further in thinking about the quality of scholarship. He wrote ‘two requirements of Christian scholarship are patience and broad interests’. I have learnt to delight in the insights of other scholars and disciplines both inside and outside of theology which have broadened my interests. At the same time I continue to learn patience in not wanting to fight every battle, as if the Lord needs me to defend his reputation and His truth at every moment.
Finally, when John describes Jesus as the beginning of his gospel he says that Jesus was ‘full of truth and grace’ (John 1:14). I love the sense of being full of both! A commitment and passion for truth needs to be immersed in generosity and humility towards others.
It may be said that these understandings can be applied to living out the Lord’s call in any vocation. And indeed they are. The call to academic theology is not more special or more difficult than the call to be an accountant, a scientist or a pastor. It is a similar call where we can glorify Jesus using the gifts and opportunities the Holy Spirit gives us.
 A. C. Thiselton, Systematic Theology (London: SPCK, 2015), pp.12-15